Book column: Latest news about books is not so bad

Gloom and doom, woe is us, with general wailing and bemoaning (it is winter, after all) the financial difficulties of Borders bookstores. There was gnashing of teeth and groaning when Amazon said it sold more e-books than paperbacks. Pessimistic bibliophiles everywhere are predicting, for the umpteenth time, the death of books, the end of publishing and the shriveling away of libraries. And then they are sensibly curling up by a cozy fire and reading another nice new book.

But maybe in between reading all those novels they should stop and read the Feb. 7  article in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called “Some Good News from the World of Books.” McSweeney’s is a project of the author Dave Eggers, whose first novel, ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ was published to great acclaim in 2000. Eggers’ novel ‘What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’ was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and in 2009 he published ‘Zeitoun,’ a nonfiction book that tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company in New Orleans who rode out Hurricane Katrina in his home and then traveled the flooded city in a secondhand canoe rescuing neighbors, caring for abandoned pets and distributing fresh water.

Eggers is a really interesting guy as well as being a terrific writer. He and his wife, author Vendela Vida, have started a nationwide nonprofit corporation called 826 Valencia, dedicated to teaching creative writing to children and teenagers. He is a publisher as well as a writer, and wins cash prizes — which he promptly donates to good causes — for his writing and for his humanitarian work. So when he embarks on a multi-part article that says there is good news about books, we should probably stop weeping and wailing for a moment and pay attention.

Eggers writes: “The good news is that there isn’t as much bad news as popularly assumed. In fact, almost all of the news is good, and most of it is very good. Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high. The good news goes on and on.

“But still, perceptions persist that in a few years there will be no books printed on paper. That e-readers will take over the industry, and perhaps soon after, some other trend will kill books dead.”

The article goes on to illustrate, with lots of facts and figures from the last few years, that even as we struggle with recession, we are still a more literate, more book-buying and more library-using people than ever before. Amazon may have sold more e-books than paperbacks, but that’s because it is an online resource that, of course, skews toward electronic delivery. Overall, e-books are only 8 to 10 per cent of the overall book market. Some chain bookstores may have money woes, but publishing is a healthy industry and books as physical objects are not going away.

Nor, despite the ridiculous notions of some people, are we moving into a world in which everybody can afford and wishes to use home computers for all their informational, cultural and recreational needs. Librarians are still the guides and keepers of credible information, whether that information has been downloaded, scanned or printed, and libraries are vital centers of community activity. People know that and they go to their libraries. A June 2010 report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services shows that per capita, overall library visitation is up 20 percent over the last 10 years. According to the American Library Association, 68 percent of American adults held a library card in 2009, the greatest number since they began keeping track of library card usage in 1990.

So there is plenty of good news on the book front and anyway, spring is just around the corner. The Floyd Memorial Library book discussion for this month is about the aforementioned “Zeitoun.” We usually read fiction, but an occasional nonfiction book is often a welcome diversion.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

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